What verse is Hebrews 1:6 citing and why isn't it in my Old Testament?

The first chapter of the Book of Hebrews cites a number of Old Testament passages to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over all things. One these quotes, however, causes a bit of confusion for some because it cannot be found in their English Old Testament. The verse in Hebrews reads:

"And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, 'And let all the angels of God worship Him,'" (Hebrews 1:6).

Commentaries or footnotes will tell you that this is from Deuteronomy 32:43 "in the LXX." Perhaps not entirely sure what LXX means, you turn to Deuteronomy 32 in your Bible and read:

"Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people," (Deuteronomy 32:43).

You find nothing about the angels of God worshiping anyone. So, what's going on here? What is the Book of Hebrews quoting? This comes back to that little clause, "in the LXX." The ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek is known as the "Septuagint," or the "LXX," (Roman numeral for "70," derived from an early account that the translation was produced by 70 Jewish Scholars in Alexandria, Egypt). When we look to the manuscripts of the Septuagint, we find the reading:

"Rejoice, O heavens, with him, and let all the sons of God worship him. Rejoice, O nations, with his people, let all the angels of God prevail for him, For He will avenge the blood of His sons, And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people," (Deuteronomy 32:43 LXX).

In the earliest citations of the Septuagint in other writings, we see a similar but slightly different reading. For example, Justin Martyr, writing around 155-160 AD, quoted it as:

"Rejoice, O heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God worship him. Rejoice, O nations, with his people, let all the angels of God prevail for him, For He will avenge the blood of His sons, And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people,"1

This is also the exact same reading we find in the Book of Hebrews. These two readings in the Septuagint tradition can be understood as meaning precisely the same thing, as the term "sons of God" could be used to denote angels, as we see in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 28:7. Interestingly, our most ancient Hebrew manuscript for this particular verse (which was unearthed among the Dead Sea Scrolls and predates the New Testament) reads:

"Rejoice, O heavens together with him; and bow down to him all you gods, for he will avenge the blood of his sons, and will recompense those who hate him, and will atone for the land and his people," (Deuteronomy 32:43, 4QDeutq, Dead Sea Scrolls).2

The Hebrew word translated here as "gods" is "elohim," and can also refer to angels or heavenly beings, depending on context. So we have solid evidence that this reading, preserved in the Septuagint and quoted in the New Testament, was not invented by the Greek translators but was found in very ancient Hebrew copies of Deuteronomy. This reading was not found, however, in the stream of Hebrew manuscripts that was preserved and used by the Rabbis. It was this stream that came later to be known as the Masoretic Text and to be accepted as the official text of the Jews. When later Christians or secular scholars sought to go back to the Hebrew and translate the Old Testament from the original language, it was the Masoretic text (or the proto-Masoretic text from which the later Masoretic tradition would develop) that they had to work with, and thus they faithfully translated the manuscripts they had in front of them and rendered Deuteronomy 32:43. This was true even as far back as Jerome in the fifth century AD, who translated the Latin Vulgate from the proto-Masoretic Hebrew texts used by the Jews in his day and thus rendered Deuteronomy 32:43 without any reference to angels of God worshipping. For this same reason, every English Bible all the back to John Wycliffe in the 14th century has lacked the phrase "let all the angels of God worship Him," in Deuteronomy 32:43 while preserving it in Hebrews 1:6.

Yet, an echo of this ancient reading may have persisted in a vague fashion among the Jews living in Roman Palestine. In one of the ancient Aramaic translations of Deuteronomy, known as "Targum Neophiti," (also known as the Palestinian Targum), we find an interesting reading:

"Acclaim before him, O you nations; Praise him O you his people, the house of Israel..." (Deuteronomy 32:43, Targum Neophiti).3

The Ancient Jewish translator clearly had the proto-Masoretic text in front of him, which simply reads "Rejoice, O nations, with His people..." Yet the translator expanded this into a longer form where multiple parties are separately called to worship. This could, of course, be nothing more than the common interpretive expansion often found in ancient Aramaic translations and midrashic commentaries. It may be, however, that this expansion preserves a cultural memory of the passage as actually being an extended call to worship issued to multiple parties, like the form of the text we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, and the early Christian literature. For now, however, this remains only a highly tentative though intriguing possibility.

At any rate, there is ample evidence to say that the form of the verse that includes this call for the angels to worship is very ancient, much older than the New Testament, and that the author of the Book of Hebrews was citing the form of the Old Testament text that his readers were familiar with, which included this clause. It is also quite possible that this reading was, indeed, the original form of Deuteronomy 32:43 and that the form of the text preserved by the Rabbis after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD happened to be a stream that contained a copiest error where an early scribe had accidentally missed part of the verse. However one explains it, we know that the Book of Hebrews was quoting Deuteronomy 32:43 as it appeared in a popular version of his day and drawing his point from this well-known text along with many other verses that carry no such controversy.

  • 1. Justin Martyr "Dialogue with Trypho," Chapter 130
  • 2. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperCollins Books, 1999) 193
  • 3. Martin McNamara, The Aramaic Bible Volume 5a; Targum Neophiti 1: Deuteronomy (The Liturgical Press, 1997) 161